Oregon upsets favorite Penn State to make final
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In Saturday's NCAA women's volleyball final, either one team will win the national championship for the first time ever … or another will win for the first time in what seems like forever.
Oregon will join Texas in the last match of the season after upsetting No. 1 seed Penn State 3-1 in the second semifinal Thursday at the KFC Yum! Center. The No. 5 seed Ducks had never been to a final four previously, and now they are playing for the title.
"It's extremely exciting," said Liz Brenner, who led Oregon with 17 kills and 17 digs. "We can't wait until Saturday night."
Texas actually has won an NCAA championship, but it was way back in 1988. Oregon coach Jim Moore, who spent 1997-2000 as the Texas coach, knows the background of both programs very well.
But he didn't want to talk about historical perspective Thursday, or even say the words "national championship." Instead, he prefers to approach Saturday as just another match, which is the mantra that fellow Pac-12 school UCLA kept repeating last year when the Bruins won it all.
Oregon has stayed "in the moment" the entire time in this NCAA tournament. The Ducks haven't been overwhelmed by their surroundings.
Playing Nebraska in the regional final at Omaha, Neb., in an arena filled with Huskers fans? Oregon handled it. Taking on five-time national champion Penn State in the final four, and facing a few set points that would have put the Ducks down 2-0? Oregon got through that, too.
That second set, in fact, was pivotal. Penn State won the first set 25-21. In the second set, Nittany Lions setter Micha Hancock -- named an American Volleyball Coaches Association first-team all-American on Wednesday -- injured her ankle and had to leave the match briefly. She came back in that set, but clearly wasn't the same player.
Oregon was able to win the second set 30-28, which made a huge difference. It meant that Hancock had to stay on the court longer for Penn State to have a chance to win. And as Nittany Lions coach Russ Rose said, it wasn't as if her ankle was improving as the match went along. It was, of course, getting worse.
"I thought we had a few opportunities in the second game that we let slip away, and we lost a lot of confidence and steam at that time," Rose said.
Hancock wasn't able to jump very well the rest of the match, which took away her jump serve (normally a huge weapon) and affected her ability to block. The Nittany Lions' block was still very good, but Hancock's limitations provided an opening for the Ducks' potent offensive attack.
That has been paced all season by another first-team all-American, Alaina Bergsma, who was Pac-12 player of the year. Along with Brenner, she was one of three Ducks who had double-doubles on Thursday, with 16 kills and 15 digs. Katherine Fischer had 16 and 12.
"We passed really well, and we have a fast offense," Bergsma said. "That's hard for even the biggest blockers to catch up to."
Then pointing to Brenner and Fischer, Bergsma continued, "We're all pretty much right in there with kills. I think that really stresses blockers, never knowing who is going to be killing it that night."
The Ducks won the third set 25-22 and then closed out the semifinal with a 25-19 victory in the fourth set.
Both coaches said before the match that Oregon's victory over Penn State in the 2011 season opener wasn't really relevant because it was so long ago. Yet it's worth noting that the Ducks now have defeated Penn State two times in a row, which is not something many programs can ever say. Even if there was a lot of time between the matches, it's still an accomplishment.
Moore said that the 2011 victory at Penn State had essentially "put Oregon on the map" as a national contender. But Thursday's win was even bigger.
Because it gives the Ducks a chance to put their name on the list of national champions.